The Borders in my town has been in the process of closing for a few weeks now. I first heard about it when I came back to California for Thanksgiving break; at that point, the store had a 30% off sale on everything in store and up to 50% or so on bargain materials. When I went back today to pick up some holiday gifts, the sale had turned into a 40% off on everything to 60% for bargain stuff. They're replacing it with a new medical building.
I'm a big fan of print culture. I really love bookstores and libraries. They've always felt like a source of comfort for me. I can't really imagine using an e-reader because I'm so attached to the tactile sensation of pages, especially worn pages, beneath my fingers. I get finicky about the contrast, size, and typeface of the print on pages. I like certain publishers more than others because of that. Et cetera.
Which is why it was so weird to go into this bookstore in its death throes. People swarmed. Shelves were empty. The area around the Children's section, which included the Biography section and the Philosophy section, was corded off with police tape. All of the sorting was haphazard; the sections weren't well labeled and the staff clearly hadn't bothered to alphabetize everything when they moved it. There were signs taped onto some of the columns in the store, printed on brightly-colored paper, with things like "A mind is a terrible thing to waste!!" on them throughout. Most of the shelves themselves had yellow index-cards at the top indicating that they had been sold to one person or another; others had signs with prices on them, several of which had been Sharpied-out once or twice and reduced. Sections once-familiar were jammed with books that I remembered from other parts of the store.
The experience was profoundly unsettling. I felt like a vulture at times, picking off the scraps of the place at its end, exploiting the sale prices and joining the mass in hastening the store's demise. There was a profound sense in me that something there had been lost, that an order with which I was familiar had been discarded in the end times, that things I remembered and memories that I had did not apply to the building in which I was standing. Something was off. I wasn't sure what. But, the emptiness was palpable; cold and staid.
It's probably cliché by now to bemoan the death of the local bookstore. Other people have done it with prettier prose. And I'm conflicted about how much that outweighs the ability of people to have greater access to cheaper books now than before. But there will for me always be a sadness in watching bookstores, even corporate ones, die one by one. There's something about physical places that gives them a soul of their own. Memories are built in them, they become like old friends. Friendships, romances, periods of life alight and dissipate. Especially for bookstores, they are places of communal thought and learning. Their presence says something profound about the values a culture and society holds and the things we as people love, with all of our hearts and souls.
What do we lose, irreparably and forever, when a place dies?
I picked something up for me on the way to the cash register. The store's last copy of Paradise Lost.